apartment with lights on at night

Of all of Sally Rooney’s novels, her first novel, Conversations With Friends, is the nearest and dearest to my heart. It’s a beautiful story with a surprising conclusion and lots of heartbreak in between.

The protagonist is a young college student. This passage, from early in the novel, reveals her life situation in an unusual way:

“When I got back to my apartment I felt drunker than I had been at the house. Bobbi had gone home and I was on my own. I turned all the lights on before I went to bed. Sometimes that was something I did.”

She turned all the lights on before bed? But why?

When I first read this paragraph, I was perplexed. But it fits into the context of the novel. It creates a certain mood. And now, from the perspective of hindsight, I understand it intellectually.

She’s young. She probably only recently moved away from home. This is probably her first time living alone. Turning on all the lights must be a source of comfort to her. She is lonely and afraid. It’s not that she’s afraid of anything specific; she merely has a general fear of the new phase of life (adulthood) she’s now entering. It’s a hard transition. But she’s tough. She’s not going to admit, even to herself, that she’s lonely and afraid. Instead, she’s going to turn on all the lights: to dispel any demons, as it were. And then she’s going to go to bed. Like an adult.

It’s such an understated, beautiful passage. That little detail of the protagonist turning on all the lights is so evocative of an entire worldview, that of an insecure young adult with a fighting spirit. As a reader, I want to reach into the book and hug her and tell her everything will be okay. She would probably stubbornly push me away and say she’s fine. But she’s not fine. We can see that.

She’s not fine. But she’s trying, in the best way she knows how.

What more can we ask?

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